Comedy as style: the case of Dorothy Parker

Sometimes we can better understand a humorist’s work by opening it up to see how the engine works on the level of language. For instance, verbal comedians, who rely for their effects on the close study of language and the careful engineering of its springs and gears, often present tacit insights into how language acts upon us—whether as literary custom, as registers of discourse (familiar, flirtatious, formal), or as the kind of conventional exchanges that become inescapable revolving doors. This is the case for Dorothy Parker, a magazine writer and famous New York wit of the early-to-mid-20th century.

In the United States, the literary comedy of the decades following the Great War was often bleak, reflecting the many social and spiritual crises that accompanied the emergence of our modernity. Postwar urban life aggravated neuroses and repression, in the recently created discourse of Sigmund Freud. At The New Yorker, the humorists Robert Benchley and James Thurber adopted a pose that became known as ‘the Little Man’, a sensible but timid schlub, terrorized by his wife and defeated by life’s small trials. The Little Man’s language is educated but self-effacing, hopeful but always on the edge of a sigh. Wrote Thurber in 1933:

This is not the world for me, this highly mechanized world. I can only hope that in Heaven there is nothing more complicated than a harp and that they will have winged mechanics to fix mine when I get down and break its back.

A darker sort than Thurber, Dorothy Parker developed a version of this sensibility that subscribed to the aesthetic of the gothic – including the gothic aesthetic of suffering womanhood. Literary critics sometimes call her persona ‘the Little Woman’, since she, too, advanced a tragic view of life fueled by a sense of disappointment in modernity. (By the 1930s, women had realized that their previous hopes, which had soared on the women’s liberation movements of the 1890s, had overshot their actual political and economic gains.)

But Parker was distinctive in her interest in language from ladies’ magazines and popular romances, with an attendant focus on matters of the heart. In her poetry and fiction, Parker’s usual strategy is to take as a given that romance is what the 19th century, in darker moods, felt it to be – a passion desirable, inescapable, and yet inevitably fatal to women – and then insert it into modern situations. (Post-Weinstein, it may be worth emphasizing that she wasn’t talking about workplace harassment. She was talking about a certain kind of politeness and a certain kind of romance.) Parker extended her male colleagues’ sense of defeat into the social economy, to which, her work suggested, no real liberation had come.

The risk of this approach is that it traffics in the sentiment of a sentimental genre; at times, sentimentality takes over the text. (‘When Parker is careless,’ said a later critic, ‘her work goes flat, words function unequally, and her attitude can collapse into sentimentality. The poems, plays, and stories become thin or, worse, maudlin and bathetic.’) Parker’s awareness of this risk in her work likely strengthened the distinctive verbal discipline of her style. In book reviews, women’s popular fiction often came under charges of sentimentality, ornamentation, and general mushiness; Parker herself quipped in one review: ‘She writes as many other three-named authoresses have written before. Her manner takes on the thick bloom of rich red plush.’ (Female authors of the period sometimes signed themselves with three names to imply that they were married, a shield against abuse.) Perhaps in response, Parker hard-boiled her metaphors and ruthlessly truncated sentences. She wrote from a woman’s subject position, but she did not want to come across as a feminine writer.

The magazine criticism for which she is famous depends for its tone on a balance between literary and conversational style. Against a standard-prose backdrop she adds small corrections or elaborations, repeats for emphasis, drops what linguists call minimal responses (‘well, at any rate’), or shifts tone slightly – verbal cues that signal spoken discourse. One of her favorite techniques is to end longish units of literary prose with colloquialisms (emphasized here), producing a low-flying effect of irony:

‘Hence,’ goes on the professor, ‘definitions of happiness are interesting.’ I suppose the best thing to do with that is to let it pass. Me, I never saw a definition of happiness that could detain me after train-time, but that may be a matter of lack of opportunity, or inattention, or congenital rough luck. If definitions of happiness can keep Professor Phelps on his toes, that is little short of dandy.

The performance of urbanity is a tricky stylistic feat. Parker creates a sense of weariness by not letting her reader experience much for the first time; ‘It is, as has probably been said somewhere, a man’s world’, for example. By repeating cliché while holding it at clausal arm’s length, she at once distances herself from convention and reinforces it, giving an air of one too experienced with worldly affairs to think they can be changed.

This weariness complicates Parker’s relationship with the gender dynamic that her fiction seeks to expose through irony. She criticizes patriarchal culture, but – by presenting the denial of women’s legitimacy as so intrinsic to human relations that social negation and sexual subordination, unfair as they are, seem inevitable – she buys into its fatalism. In her famous story ‘The Waltz’, she dramatizes, by juxtaposing the internal and external monologues of a woman at a dance, the bitter results of the socialization of women:

Mind? Oh, I’m simply thrilled. I’d love to waltz with you.
I’d love to waltz with you. I’d love to waltz with you. I’d love to have my tonsils out, I’d love to be in a midnight fire at sea. Well, it’s too late now. We’re getting under way…
Ow!
For God’s sake, don’t kick, you idiot; this is only second down. Oh, my shin. My poor, poor shin, that I’ve had ever since I was a little girl!
Oh, no, no, no. Goodness, no. It didn’t hurt the least little bit. And anyway it was my fault. Really it was. Truly. Well, you’re just being sweet, to say that. It really was all my fault.

What guides the story’s choreography through to the bleak finish (‘I’d simply adore to go on waltzing’) is the disparity between the speaker’s frank internal diction and her feminized social diction. The narrator has long since learned to please others, a purpose for which she has learned to speak suitable language. Parker’s despair is that we are caught up in webs of words and meanings that we can’t escape; we keep reproducing the conversations and the structures around us. A complex of forces keeps the narrator locked, in perpetuity, in the embrace of a sexual economy that smothers her separate will.

At the time, Thurber was publishing cartoons that envisioned women as domineering, physically gargantuan emasculators. Part of Thurber’s claim was that the emergence of women into male political and economic territory had engendered a psychological ‘War between the Sexes’. Yet by their twilight years as writers, both humorists seemed to be realizing that the very fact of a war ensured that both sides would be losers. Parker’s world-weary language, her layering of diction to produce a sensibility that has seen it all and will see it all again, shares a certain tenor with our present moment. Many of our problems today feel all the heavier in the fact that they constitute timeworn reiterations of the same damn thing.

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